Design Research

with Erika Hall

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What are the key principles of research for ideas?

Erika Hall

Co-Founder of Mule Design, Author, Research & Design Expert

Lessons Learned

Successful people are comfortable being uncertain and always validate hypotheses with the market.

Hanging onto something that used to be true is the kiss of death for businesses.

Funding startups no one needs is killing innovation.

Investing in startups shouldn't be a horse race about winning, but about lasting data.

You must be personally invested a real problem.

There is a huge loss in opportunity cost for the cavalier, fail fast attitude.

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Lesson: Design Research with Erika Hall

Step: #4 Certainty: What are the key principles of research for ideas?

Certainty is really appealing because, you know, we live in an uncertain world and people naturally gravitate towards things that they feel really sure about. They feel that's a very comfortable position and they think the rest of the world is very uncomfortable and very uncertain, but I know this.

This is why it's really difficult to convince people who have certain flawed beliefs, not flawed beliefs, but people who believe something that might be proven untrue will cling to that belief. I think a discipline that all of us need to impose on ourselves is letting go of that, saying, "I'm comfortable always being uncertain and always checking" and not just clinging to things that are comfortable.

That's the way that you succeed and that's the way that the world moves forward. The way that businesses move forward is not looking backward or being nostalgic for the ways things were, or hanging onto something that used to be true, which is going on in a lot of businesses right now, especially in publishing.

It's like magazines used to be awesome and really profitable so we're going to try to make magazines. You know, it's like a horseless carriage now. It's like the iPad magazine application. Letting go of that and having that discipline and being willing to be personally uncomfortable because things are constantly changing and something that you loved that was very successful last year, might not work anymore but always looking, always reevaluating to say, "Is the thing I'm working on… is it going in the right direction?

"Does it reflect the way that the world really is, instead of the way the way I wished the world worked?" That is really, really difficult, but I think that's where being successful and creating things that solve real problems for people, that's where it starts.

It's cultivating that attitude in yourself and always checking to make sure that all of your decisions are in line with that and in line with actual real world context and not based in a situation that you just wish were actually true.

I think funding startups nobody needs kills innovation because if this is the culture, if the culture is that funding a new company or starting a new business is the same as just putting chips down on a table, that means that that's where the energy and attention are going.

If you look now in the current climate, there are these companies that come out and it's like a horse race. People look at the new company launches and they don't say, "That's a really great idea. Who's going to win?" It's totally disconnected from what's going on in the real world.

I think the other issue of that is the issue of sustainability. An investor can invest in a company that's making something that nobody needs and that investor can make money. That investor can cash out because maybe what they've done is a founder has come up with an idea that's completely erroneous, but very attractive.

The founder has attracted a lot of talent because they say, "Oh, this sounds like a fun thing to work on". The investor invests in that idea and they package that up and sell it to an acquirer. This is a very successful outcome for the investor, but all it is, is very expensive and complicated recruiting.

Now some large, perhaps not very innovative company that cannot attract talent, has great talent in handcuffs to work on their stupid products. That means that those people who might be very bright and very creative have been brought into service of things that aren't very compelling or interesting or useful in the rest of the world.

Everybody here is successful to a certain extent, the investor can make their money back and have a good return, everybody who went to work for that company can make a good amount of money on whatever they got from the acquirer and the acquirer has engineering talent.

Whatever product that they were working on in that startup might be taken out of operation. Plenty of products are sunsetted and shut down in an acquisition. If you look at it from an investor's point of view, they're successful. If you look at it from the founder's point of view, they're successful.

If you look at it from the wider world and do we have better products and services because of this system? No. It's just been a wealth transfer. Some people went to work for a tiny company and ended up working at a very large company and two years their handcuffs will be off, and they will start the system over again. That's where the incentives are.

There's no incentive to make anything sustainable because as long as the investor makes their return within their horizon, they're happy. They don't care if then years from now, we have flying cars that run on hydrogen and don't pollute.

There's an attitude I think among, I won't tar all entrepreneurs or all investors but I think there is in this enthusiasm for just getting out and prototyping and trying stuff, an idea for let's just try something and see if it works.

I think that cavalier attitude where you don't care… because that's what it sounds like to me. If you just want to try something, "Oh, we'll throw it at the wall, and if it sticks, it works, fine." That means that you're not really interested in solving a problem. You're just sort of entertaining yourself as opposed to being really, genuinely invested in solving a real problem.

Then you'll think, "What's the best way I can use the resources I have at hand to solve this problem" versus "Oh, we'll just see if this works". I think that attitude, that fail-fast attitude can really increase your chances of failure.

The chance of failure that's decreased is the chance of personal failure. There's no stigma. You can say, "Oh, I started this company. I made this really stupid Pinterest knockoff and it didn't work out." The chances of being able to recover personally and being able to continue on in your career are very high.

If you don't actually care, if you're not personally invested in whether you're solving a real problem and whether that solution works, that actually increases the chances that whatever you're doing won't work and will fail, and that's not good. That's a huge opportunity cost.

You're just wasting everybody's time. You're wasting your potential user's time because they think, "Oh, this sounds interesting but the people who made it didn't really care that they were solving real problems, so it's a waste of my time. You're wasting any developers or designers. You're wasting your investor's money.

Why not start and ask the hard questions to make sure you're making the best use of everyone's time and resources and energy? Even if it's one person. Even if it's a couple of people doing this in their spare time.

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